Last Saturday, August 17, the Mass readings contained one of my favorite Bible verses. Joshua 24:15,
If it is displeasing to you to serve the LORD, choose today whom you will serve, the gods your ancestors served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
What follows is a small collection of advice, cobbled together from personal and observed experiences, on helping to maintain a faith filled household. Their validity in your life I leave for you to decide. In any case, what I offer is a starting point. At the end of the day, when your children reach the age of reason they will be responsible for their faith. In our present culture, they will need any help parents can offer.
Why parents first?
The old adage “the apple does not fall far from the tree” fits in nicely. Children, despite tendencies to rebel, look to their parents first in a great many things. May I do this or that, ect.? Children trust their parents implicitly, so they take many of their cues, consciously or unconsciously, from their parents.
In a Catholic household, the parents must look to themselves first. If you do not care about your faith any more than making a meager, half-hearted attempt to make Mass on most Sundays, your children will learn from that example. If the term “Holy Day of obligation” means nothing to you why should it mean something to your children? If Confession is a sacrament you never attend…well you get the picture.
Parents, examine and develop your own prayer life. Your interior castle should be under construction as much as your child’s. This is especially true for those just-beginning families. God comes first, no matter how cute the baby is. Pray with your spouse, in your baby’s room, arrive before Mass begins to pray, bring God into your family early on. A basic question from children is, “How do I pray?” How would you answer if you do not pray? Pray with and in front of your children.
Self-educate. If you are not knowledgeable, learn and let your children see you do it. It is okay to admit you don’t know something. This teaches humility. If your children are older, learning can be a shared experience to bring your family together. You do not have to become a theologian. Just make an effort to become informed. Take advantage of any resources your parish offers or search the internet for a credible learning resource. This will also give you avenues to send your children down should they desire to be more independent in their learning.
Set aside an area explicitly for prayer. This can be as large as a room or as small as a nook. We spend time and energy decorating our homes and buying entertainment equipment. This assigns importance to these objects for children. Equal importance should be assigned to spending time with God. If you are able, make a room for family and individual prayer. Perhaps a closet that is cluttered with junk could be converted into a prayer room. In any case, if whole rooms can be designated for watching television we can certainly do the same for God.
Children are visual folk. Include somewhere in your home pictures or statues of Christ’s life, Mary, the saints, or Bible quotations. Also, crucifixes, as many as possible, in each room. This sends two messages. First, these are important as the family photos and trophies you put up. Second, these can be held up as examples to emulate and places to turn for guidance and solace. These can also function as the meeting place for family or individual prayer.
We live in a fast paced world that shows no signs of slowing down. This is not an excuse to not pray. Start small and build up. My parents began with two simple prayers in the home. First, pray Grace at each and every meal even if you’re the one reminding the kids each time. Second, teach them the Guardian Angel prayer for bedtime. You can pray this together just before bed and then give them gentle reminders as they get older to help them pray alone. Also, ask your priest to come and bless your home with your family.
When you pray together, take advantage of the great number of prayers of our Church. The entire Rosary may be to long for younger children so pray a decade at first but be sure to include the mysteries and Bible verses. Also, the saints composed a pray for basically every situation and day. If your family is physically separated, pray the Angelus at its hours (6, noon, 6) to keep you all spiritually together. As they age, ask them to take the lead in prayer time. Take time to acknowledge, out loud, the blessings and difficulties in your lives together by bringing them all to God. This will help children later in life. Do this frequently by setting a reoccurring time to help children develop their personal prayer life.
If you can, take your children to Adoration. Because of the never ending electronic stimulus we receive, many are uncomfortable sitting in silence, even with God. Help your children be at ease with the Blessed Sacrament. Show them God is not to be avoided but to run towards. Those who are older may enjoy spiritual reading at this time to help them grow accustomed to sitting in silence. We hear God when we let Him speak. Make this a family outing by including a meal before or after.
The Sacraments and Holy Mass
Mass, every Sunday and Holy Day, is a must. Exempting sickness and such, there are no excuses to not go to Mass. Start this early on, or, if your children are older, begin it immediately and take the time to explain why. Please, be conscious of how you approach Mass and the Eucharist as your children will take these cues. We arrive to movies early to watch the previews, so we should take the time to arrive early to Mass. Use that time to settle the little ones, pray, use the bathroom (not during Mass), or read the day’s readings together. Make Mass a family affair. Yes, children are unpredictable and God understands in those moments, but those moments do not exist every moment. Personally, crying babies are the sound of the future of the Church, so keep ‘em in Mass.
If you can, encourage your children to participate in the Mass by setting the example. My brother and I would altar serve while our parents ushered. If your children love music help them get involved with the choir. If your parish uses them, there are also extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and lectors. In each, we serve God in the Mass.
The Sacramental life is a river of graces so make it integral to your lives. When your children receive their First Holy Communion, First Confession, and Confirmation be excited so they are excited! You do not have to throw an extravagant party at your child’s First Holy Communion, but do celebrate because they just received God for the first time in the Eucharist. Help them to see the importance even if they do not fully comprehend the significance.
Confession is a sacrament that makes many people feel uncomfortable to say the least. One easy way to fix this is go to Confession frequently, more than at Easter and Christmas, as a family. Walk them through the examination of conscience, without asking the sins, or, if they are too young, take turns with your spouse while one of you is in the confessional. Be sure to keep an open line of communication to discuss any fears or issues. If they have seen you go for their entire lives it will be much more likely they will also be comfortable with the sacrament. More importantly, children will learn God is merciful and, possibly, not avoid the sacrament for years at a time.
Confirmation is a tricky one. At this point in their lives, usually 16-18, teenagers are fully under the pressure of our culture. My personal experience in teaching Confirmation classes is that an uncomfortably large portion was there because their parents said so. Sitting in a classroom was not where they wanted to be. In keeping with the theme thus far, however, parents should be with their child every step of the way here. Ask questions, discuss issues or doubts, help them find friends in the parish to share the beautiful experience with, and help them understand this is part of becoming an adult in the Church. The graces from this sacrament will help them continue to grow after.
My mother tells me I will always be her baby. Despite your babies entering adulthood you should remain a part of their spiritual lives. Adulthood actually broadens what you can do with your children in the Church. Share books, your own personal faith journey, advice for living the faith in the world, point out retreats to go on, ask for your children’s opinions and advice, they may surprise you. Continue to pray for them and with them.